Sewing tools: Thimbles

Home Economics was not a reality when I was in school. I’m pretty sure there were home ec classes in all of my schools, but I had other stuff to fill those seven classes a day. Most school years, I didn’t have time for all the stuff I wanted to do, much less classes the teenage aspiring astronaut/doctor/senator/lawyer me would ever need.

This means I’m mostly self-taught in all sorts of crafty stuff. One great-grandmother did give me a basic 9 block when I was about four (she made gorgeous quilts), and another put a ginormous crochet hook and the nastiest 1970’s era acrylic yarn in my hands (and made me wary of yarn for years) and my mother taught me the basics of running a sewing machine at some point, but I’m GenX. We really didn’t get instruction — we got instruction manuals. I’ve been RTFMing since I could read.

I never learned to use a thimble. I know what they are, and I’ve used a lot of makeshift ones over the years (a never-to-be-used credit card makes a great needle pusher; teeth can be used as needle pliers in a real pinch, but the former will ruin the card, and the latter will send a dentist’s kid to Berkeley) but I’ve never figured out how they’re supposed to work.

Some people push the needle with a fingertip, but I use the side of my middle finger, between the first and second knuckle. When I do handwork, I usually use a back-stitch or a chain stitch, not a running stitch. My stitch length won’t win awards and running stitches get bunchy on me.

For a thimble, I start with a square of leather about 3″ x 3″. I’ve used junk purses, Dritz leather elbow patches, upholstery scrap and chamois from the automotive shop. I personally like upholstery scrap, since it’s a good weight, usually cheap, and flexible. The only thing that doesn’t work well is garment suede. Garment suede will wear through in about three weeks of heavy use. The small pieces from Michael’s work fine if that’s what you’ve got, but you’re better off buying a thrift-store purse and cutting it down. Vegans, I’m sorry, but pleather does not work. The needles will puncture it. If you’re entirely opposed to using leather, I suggest figuring out how to use a metal thimble.

You’ll also need
heavy thread or two rivets (my preference for speed and not having to shove a needle through leather without a thimble)
an awl
a small hammer
something you can pound on (anvil, scrap wood, sibling skull — something thick, not easily damaged, resilient)
scissors (not the fabric scissors)
chalk or a crayon

Wrap the leather around the finger you want to protect, with one edge near the palm knuckle and the other near the nail. You want this to be tight but not cut off circulation — leather will stretch over time. Use your chalk to mark your first and second knuckles, and mark the length. You want about 1/4 to 1/2 inch (.5 to 1 cm) overlap.

Your fingers probably taper a little, so the first shape you’ll cut in the leather is a trapezoid. (Do this fitting with paper or a scrap of fabric if leather is hard to get.)


A: length of finger between first and third knuckle
B: circumference of finger at third knuckle plus 1/2 inch
C: circumference of finger at first knuckle plus 1/2 inch

Cut a couple half circles from each side of the trapezoid and one from the center — this is so your finger can bend. Don’t cut too deep, and use your chalk marks as a guide.

Now use the awl to poke holes in the corners — where the blue dots are in my drawing. If you’re sewing the thimble together, you’ll need six or eight on each tab, about 1/8 inch apart. Rivets only need one hole. Rivets are cheap (usually $3 for a pack of fifty) and they’re right next to the leather at the craft shop.

Check the fit, sew up or smash the rivets, and get to sewing. For me, that means an audiobook or some season of television.

General Grouse

High efficiency washing machines are GREAT when you live in a desert.

They suck for prewashing fabric. Everything gets twisted, and then the new, modern dryer makes it all worse. And there is no hanging of laundry right now, because yesterday’s high temp was a balmy 14 degrees, and there’s not enough Thinsulate in the world. (Also, my neighbors on the side of the house with the clothesline have somewhere between nine and twenty-gazillion dogs, and I am allergic, so that area is a no-go.)

Indeed, I have ironed about twenty yards of cotton recently. Why do you ask?

Archive: Dispatch from the Trenches of Public Mental Health

Archive: Originally posted at Democratic Underground on 12/18/12

As a preface, the discussions on mental health this week have gotten me where I live. On April 20, 1999, I was working a few counties away from Columbine High School, in the juvenile division. I had several clients who were either expelled or suspended from school in the days after — not for anything they did, but for being different, under care, or just part of the geek/goth sub-culture. My clients bore the blame for the actions of others, and that blame did not help anyone — not community, not clients, not the victims. I’m seeing that exact same pattern again. We have done this, and the collateral damage endures.

These are my experiences — the stats have probably changed since my colleagues and I last compiled our numbers, but they haven’t changed much, and in many cases, not for the better. I don’t have accurate numbers for 2008-forward, but given the slashing state, county and city budgets have taken, I’m not hopeful for better.


I used to be a clinical psychologist in public mental health. Burn out is the brontosaurus in the living room. Here’s a snapshot of the trenches. The average public mental health clinician has been in the job for less than five years, and has been licensed for about the same amount of time. They’re mostly young and new. 65% leave public service for either private practice or get out of the field entirely. I was lucky — I had excellent scholarships and fellowships through grad school, but some of my peers self-financed and left grad school with debt they will be paying until they hit Social Security age. Starting salary at the county level (which is the majority of public mental health clinicians) averages less than the average first year public school teacher. (A psychologist, by the way, usually has 7 years of post-secondary education; a K-12 teacher has 5-6.) We don’t have a union. In some counties, we’re not even employees — we’re contractors, so no benefits. We don’t go into psych for the money — we’re there because we want to help others. And it kills us — we’re 3 times more likely to commit suicide than our peers. We’re 6 times more likely to be on anxiolytics than the general population.

In my last year before going back into research, 95% of my clients were court-ordered. The few who were there voluntarily were as compliant as their circumstances allowed, but a court order drops compliance by at least half. A therapist can’t help a client who doesn’t want help, and often clients work against court-ordered therapy. For the court-ordered client, the therapist is the avatar of a power structure where the client is entirely disempowered. The therapist seems to have the power to send a parolee back to prison for a beer or mouthing off, to place zir children in foster care, to force them to abandon anyone we determine to be a “bad influence” — which in a lot of cases, means most of the client’s social network. In most counties, the client is forced to pay for this. In most places, public mental health services are set up to fail comprehensively. I worked in a red county, and believe me, the county board of supervisors wanted us to fail. If we failed, they could stop paying us liberal commie bleeding hearts and just send all that human garbage to rot in prison (and that prison made a lot of the local power structure a lot of money…)

Our clients’ median household income was less than half of the local median household income. Poverty makes compliance harder.

Pop quiz:
Go to therapy or go to work — when skipping either violates parole?
Buy court-ordered meds or buy food?
Use one’s 9th grade literacy skills to write in one’s therapy journal or get an extra half-hour of sleep after a triple shift?
Pick two: rent, therapy, or kid’s root canal?

Clients have a lot of dreadful algebra every day. For a lot of my clients, poverty was both the cause and effect of their dx. Public mental health made me a socialist — fix the social safety net and half of the client load vanishes because half of the client load is situational. If every kid has enough to eat, safe and comfortable housing and an effective school, if every adult has safe shelter, valued, meaningful work and sufficient leisure, depression and anxiety plummet. It’s not a panacea, but our deficits in the safety net magnify our problems.

I spent most of my time in the trenches deeply worried about my clients — I took it home with me every night. If a client was non-compliant and I reported it, my client could have gone to prison (or gone back for parole violation), which ends any hope of effective treatment. Non-compliance can mean anything from skipping appointments to not doing the work to skipping meds to self-medicating. I was supposed to report every beer, even with clients who had no addiction problems. Do I report someone because zie blew a long-bald tire or got a chance to work extra hours so zer kids actually got new shoes, but can’t call to reschedule because zer boss doesn’t allow personal calls (or maybe doesn’t know zie’s in therapy — people still get fired for mental illness, especially in right to work states)? If I didn’t report it, that’s my license… And possibly a suicide, or domestic violence, or a relapse. Believe me, that stress eats therapists alive.

Without a license, my master’s degree won’t get me a job at a call center or flipping burgers. But pissing off a client by reporting non-compliance earned one of my colleagues a severe beating. I had my tires slashed (which were bald, but I couldn’t afford to replace them.) I was salaried, scheduled for 30 one-on-one appointments a week, plus 10 hours of group, plus 75 welfare calls (6-12 hours), plus on call for 24 hours a week. Yes, 70-80 hour weeks, for which the county paid us $27K a year plus medical and dental (but I couldn’t take the time off to actually see my doctor or dentist…) Unlike teachers, we don’t even get summers off. The year I left, the county I worked for cut 3 of the 27 positions and the county judges ordered 21% more therapy. Which meant worse service, worse outcomes, more recidivism, which gave the county board of supervisors more incentive to cut the budget.

This country doesn’t care about public mental health, either the clients or the therapists. We’re first responders — and the first rule of first response is don’t be a casualty. I was terrified I was going to kill myself, or screw up so badly that a client or someone else got hurt. I cried every night for three years. I am in research now so I have the energy and time to fight for better conditions for clients and colleagues. I still have 80 hour work weeks, but half of that time is lobbying on their behalf. It’s the only way we’ll ever change it. Public mental health is like juggling burning napalm.

The Waterloo Project: Background

Despite being a non-theist Quaker, I have an obsession with war — specifically the Napoleonic Wars. I find the whole history fascinating, from the weaponry to the women who followed the drum, to the strategies to the equipment and the diseases and the supply lines and the shifting alliances (and the clothes.) I am also fascinated with the aftermath — thousands of veterans returned to their homes with something that looks like PTSD, and for the most part, the contemporaries managed to treat it about as well as we do — and this before anxiolytics, theory of mind or behavioral therapy. In fact, we’re now re-inventing some of their treatments.

I’m currently working on the second draft of a novel set in the immediate aftermath of Waterloo, when those who survived that field returned home and tried to resume their lives. Waterloo as a battle was probably the worst single-day mass casualty event to date, and it remained the worst until World War I — around a quarter of those who were on the field that day were killed or wounded. The day of Waterloo effectively started around noon and concluded at sunset, and it was a small battlefield — about six square miles if my math is correct. And in that small space, in those few hours, upwards of 50,000 people were killed or seriously wounded. In some places, the bodies were stacked several deep.

I knew I needed to go to England to do some on the ground research for the book — I’m setting it in Suffolk, which is not Berkshire, Manchester or London, and had entirely different social and economic structures in 1815 than the rest of the country. (As in, in Norfolk, the next county north, machine breakers got a good hold in the first part of the nineteenth century. They did not manage the same solidarity in Suffolk. I’d like to know why.) It also does not appear to have a high concentration of stately houses and nobility — most of the structures I’ve found were Victorian, not Georgian. It had a higher than average concentration of non-conformists, including Quakers, Methodists and Puritans. Suffolk is where most religious reforms have started.

I also knew that I would not be able to drive in England. However, I live at high altitude and I bike in a hilly area, so I feel confident that I’ll do fine with a combination of bikes and trains. That is a goal for this project — in the next two years, I need to be comfortable biking for four hours a day, several days a week, and doing so with a trailer at least part of the time.

Initially, I was planning to take my trip in 2014, but the longer I have to fund and prepare for this, the better. Also… delaying one year will let me be on scene for Waterloo, and for the 200th anniversary re-enactment of the battle. There will be people with black-powder rifles, and cannon, and cavalry. It will be cool.

But if I’m going to Waterloo, I want to do so with style, panache — and in period. I see no point in traveling 7000 miles to tramp around a battleground in shorts and sneakers. If I’m going to witness the re-enactment, I want to participate. I want to know what it was like to be on that battlefield.

To do so, I must be prepared to camp for several days, without ultralight backpacking gear or batteries.

And with luck, we’re seeing where this gets complicated: I want to spend three weeks in Suffolk, then cross the Channel for ten days in Belgium, then recross the Channel, spend some time in London (probably a week). I’m willing to camp the entire time (and Britain is blessed with numerous camping spaces) though I may not. I have to be able to carry all of my gear (with the assistance of my handy bike trailer and a bicycle.)

There’s a second complication — I don’t fly. I love planes, I love flight, but I hate what we’ve done to our airlines, and traveling with this kit is not going to be functional, given current restrictions. I also want to know what being on a ship is like. It turns out that taking a steerage cabin on a trans-Atlantic ship is not significantly more expensive than flying, except in terms of time. (I expect to get some reading and writing done during the two weeks of crossing.) The advantage of a ship is I can carry more luggage — and carry a few things that I can’t take on a plane. Also, no jetlag.

I do have a trial run available — the Battle of New Orleans re-enactment in January 2014. I’ll drive to that one, packing all of my gear into my Kia Soul (which has an incredible amount of cargo space) to see what I actually need and what I don’t.

That gives me my parameters: I need to build an encampment that:

–> I can carry or wheel around (no single box can weigh more than 40 pounds, the whole collection can’t weigh more than 150 pounds)
–> fits in spaces no larger than 24 inches by 36 inches by 15 inches (standard suitcase)
–> can be assembled by one technically and mechanically savvy woman of 5’3″ tall in one afternoon
–> passes period inspection to the level of standard tents (most of those I see in photos of re-enactments have machine-stitched hems and seams)
–> doesn’t force me to sleep on the ground (I’ll be 39, and I haven’t comfortably slept on the ground in years now)
–> provides sufficient shelter and space for one woman, her stuff, and will keep out the weather in both a Belgian summer and a Louisiana winter.
–> uses off-the-shelf components with minimal modification as much as possible.

I also need to build a period wardrobe that has its own set of parameters, including:

–> sufficiently warm for a Louisiana winter and a Belgian summer (according to NOAA and The Weather Channel, their averages are remarkably identical.)
–> exact for 1814/15
–> comfortable for daily wear
–> passes as formal wear for shipboard
–> possibly acceptable as regular daily wear. (Empire and militaria being fashionable at the moment)